If there’s one thing you can say about Atlus, it’s that the publisher will almost certainly continue to defy all expectations, transporting many beloved Japanese games to a Western audience, no matter how niche or unorthodox.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception is the latest in this long line of examples. Placing you in the role of unfortunate amnesiac Haku, the game begins as a lot of these rather melodramatic Japanese visual novels often do, with a protagonist asking questions such as “why”, “what”, “when”, and “who”. And while this typically is done as a means of letting you use the main character of the story as a conduit in which to implant your own agendas, all of Mask of Deception’s characters – including your own – ooze their own distinct personalities.
After a short prologue sequence that sees Haku rescued from danger by part animal part doe-eyed lady companion Kuon, it isn’t too long before the two set out on a venture to find their place in the world of Yamato. Despite any inclination of grandeur or scale within Mask of Deception’s wider narrative, it’s really the relationship development between these two central characters that acts as the game’s driving force and reason for playing.
Haku is boastful, proud, and despite being an outsider in an unfamiliar land, is consistently determined to find the truth even when it means making a fool of himself. Contrary to this is beast-like beauty Kuon, a strong-willed native with a heart of gold and a willingness to see Haku succeed in regaining his memories. It’s made clear from the off that both originate from two completely different worlds, and it’s their journey to understanding each other’s differing perceptions and point of views that carries the most weight whenever the broader story develops.
It won’t be a surprise for Japanese visual novel veterans to hear that the main bulk of Mask of Deception’s tale is relayed primarily through static graphics that for the most part do a nice job at depicting the many settings and character conversations, even if one particular image of the sky is troublingly overused at times. I’m pleased to report that a handy auto-scroll option can be easily toggled on and off, perfect for players who wish to lay their controller down and let the story run at steady pace.
What doesn’t always make use of a steady pace unfortunately, are the points in which Mask of Deception abrasively slides into strategy RPG mode. At various points in the campaign, Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception treats you to a perfectly fine, if rather uninspired SRPG system that really underwhelms in comparison to other higher quality turn-based experiences like Fire Emblem or Disgaea.
When entering battle, you’re given the ability to command a small team of party members from an isometric perspective each with their own unique set of skills, attributes, and equippable items. Tasked with taking down the various enemy units, moving your characters across the battlefield grid is responsive and effective enough, it’s just that whenever Mask of Deception focusses on battling as opposed to storytelling, it’s all over before you’re able to gain a deeper understanding of its systems.
Many times while playing did I find that I was able to brute force my way through each turn-based encounter, with each strategy RPG battle feeling more like an endcap to a story chapter as opposed to a meaningful battle interwoven naturally alongside the game’s far superior visual novel sections. It’s this weird mixture of gameplay styles that while a bold endeavour, unfortunately isn’t executed as seamlessly as one would hope.
By the time I had completed my wistful journey into Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception I had clocked in at around 38 hours of total play time. And while the game’s conclusion in no way hides the fact it’s setting up of a sequel by way of Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth which releases later this year, I was more than satisfied by the character arcs experienced by Haku, Kuon, and the host of other colourful characters that joined my party along the way.
Jump into Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception expecting a traditional Japanese visual novel experience, and you’ll no doubt be a little disappointed by the game’s inclusion of a somewhat forced SRPG system as opposed to the puzzle approach present in other games of its ilk. The game knowingly tries to satisfy two differing audiences while compromising the sought-after experience for both, but look past these intermittent battle sections and there’s a fulfilling character-driven tale just waiting to be uncovered.